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Italian Dressing

From Faster Family Favorites

How we tested

Oil and vinegar make the simplest salad dressing, one that's easy enough to put together yourself: Just whisk oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper, and serve. So why would anyone purchase a bottled salad dressing? We can think of a couple of reasons. Sometimes you are just too tired to do it yourself. But the better reason is that sometimes you want something with more personality and zip. Italian dressing, for example, contains not just oil and vinegar but garlic, red pepper, oregano, and other herbs and spices. Sounds good, but several of those ingredients need to be finely chopped, which can add up to a lot of work. All of a sudden the commercial stuff in the bottle starts to look attractive.

Still, if the supermarket Italian dressing tastes awful, we'd just as soon stick to plain old oil and vinegar. To find out if any of the Italian dressings out there are worth buying, we rounded up seven leading brands. Of the dressings we selected (all available nationwide), most had similar ingredient lists: oil, vinegar, water, sugar, and salt, along with garlic, onion, red bell pepper, various herbs and spices, stabilizers, and preservatives. (A key ingredient in these dressings is xanthan gum, a stabilizer that gives them their signature thickness.) Each dressing was sampled on a piece of iceberg lettuce and given a numerical score by 20 panelists, who did not know which brands were being tasted. Styles and flavor profiles did vary between brands, but tasters had clear favorites.

Were any of these dressings good enough to buy? We found only two that were up to snuff. The winner requires that you add your own oil and vinegar at home, so it was closest to homemade. Our second place brand was OK but on the sweet side -- a good choice for kids. Some tasters called it "light and spicy," while others said that it reminded them of the dressings served in school cafeterias.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*